Ancient Cities, part 1

My Dad and stepmother, Sophie, came to visit during my second to last week in Sri Lanka. They spent a few days in Kandy before we went up to see the ancient cities in the dry zone. Our first day of traveling we managed to see three sites, the Hindu temple in Matale, the Dambulla Cave Temple, and Sigiriya Rock.

The Hindu temple in Matale is the largest in Sri Lanka. Most of the temple is fairly new, built in the last decade or so, but it is very very big. Our guide seemed to know everything about the temple and all the Hindu gods, though my dad and Sophie had some difficulty understanding what he was saying because they weren’t yet accustomed to Sri Lanka English. It was cool to hear that both Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka visit the temple.


Next stop was Dambulla to see the famous cave temples. I figured that a cave would be under the ground, but instead it was on top of a steep hill up a long set of steps. The paintings are under a ledge on a rock face that has been walled in to create the tamples. The five caves are filled with thousands of paintings and hundreds of statues of the Buddha of all sizes.

Buddha's feet in Dambulla cave temple

Buddha's feet in Dambulla cave temple

On our walk down we stopped to watch a snake charmer with a king cobra. Sophie was scared and hid behind me while the snake was out of its basket. The charmer told us that the snake had no venom, but it was still a little frightening to see a real live cobra.

Snake charmer

Snake charmer

Next we visited Sigiriya Rock, where I’d been once before with my sister. On a second viewing, the ancient rock fortress was still amazing.  The design of the gardens seems so modern, and the site is so picturesque that it is easy to imagine what life was like there 1,500 years ago.

Top of Sigiriya Rock

Top of Sigiriya Rock

After all those stairs we headed to our hotel in Giritale, near Polonnaruwa. Around dusk the staff at the hotel showed us a herd of elephants on the other side of a man-made lake. The dry zone is dotted with these lakes, called tanks, or in Sinhala “wewa,” that were built during the first flowering of Sinhalese culture. They are part of a complex irrigation system that is still used today.

The next morning we woke up early to visit Anuradhapura, the first and longest capital of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura was the capital from the 4th century BCE to the 11th century CE, which, according to our guide,  makes it the longest continuous capital in history. At its height the city supported a large population, and several Buddhist colleges for scholars from all over the ancient world. After the collapse of the ancient Sinhalese culture, the city was taken over by jungle and forgotten by most people. During the British colonial period the city was uncovered, and today it is once again a center for Buddhists pilgrims, and for tourists throughout the world.

We started our day at Anuradhapura with a visit to the Ruwanwelisaya, a gigantic stupa, 300 feet tall, and 950 ft around.



Most of the other tourists at Anuradhapura were Sri Lankan, some pilgrims, but mostly students. A group of young Muslim boys was walking in line up to the stupa, and when I said “hello” to them, half the students stopped in their tracks, jumbling together in line.

Next we went to see the Jetavanaramaya, the largest brick structures in the world, made with 93 million bricks. It is even bigger than the Ruwanwelisaya at 400 ft high, and after the pyramids in Egypt, it is the biggest structure in the ancient world.

Jetavana Dagoba

Jetavana Dagoba

From far away the dagoba looked almost perfectly shaped, but up close it was possible to see how the bricks had shifted and the shape had become uneven over the last 1,000 years.

We poked around a few more ruins at Anuradhapura before taking a break for lunch. After the heat of the dry zone at mid-day, the air-conditioned restaurant was a real treat. Our guide, Charith, was very knowledgeable about the history of Anuradhapura and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, which was wonderful for my dad and Sophie who are both Mahayana Buddhists. At lunch he told us about Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, in Sri Lanka throughout the ages up until now. He also told me he was sure that someday I would become a Buddhist, though I said this was unlikely.

After lunch we decided to visit an forest monastery nearby to escape the heat of the Anuradhapura ruins. The forest monastery was set in an ancient park and was peaceful and quiet. We explored the ruins and then climbed to a viewpoint on top of a hill where we could see the Ruwanwelisaya and Jetavana dagobas in the distance.



One response to “Ancient Cities, part 1

  1. Alison, I have been following your blog. You covered so much fantastic information in a concise, straight forward style. Thanks for letting me tag along on your amazing adventure.

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